Elevator Girls

In an old New York Times essay a journalist commemorated the Japanese elevator girl’s voice as being especially piercing and high pitched. Other Americans have similarly made fun of this feminized service occupation, describing it as a particularly extraneous and vacuous job. Japan’s first elevator girls appeared in 1929, when the newly reopened Ueno branch of Matsuzakaya Department Store promoted novel features such as air conditioning, its own post office, and eight elevators operated by women. Since then elevator girls have been of great cultural interest, appearing in numerous comics, a TV drama series, films, Hello Kitty incarnations, novels and in other media. She was a big hit in this McDonald’s commercial from 2006, in which she munches a burger with one hand while preventing a passenger from boarding by pushing the close button with her other hand. The words “I want to eat now” appear on the screen.

Video link.

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I want to take the elevator girl seriously as part of a larger effort to reclaim women’s cultural history. In a forthcoming book chapter I track the history and representation of this feminized occupation, as well as the training and experiences of contemporary elevator girls. For example, the high-pitched voice that so irritates foreigners is intentionally fake. As part of their training elevator girls practice speaking in a crafted vocal performance in order to alert customers that they are not available for chatting up: they are on duty in their professional roles. The pre-determined announcements, delivered in the Tokyo-based “standard” dialect, also allow women from diverse regional and class backgrounds an opportunity to work in elegant surroundings in a desired urban location. The work and the uniform strip elevator girls of individuality, thus allowing the observer to imagine their own fantasies about these women (not surprisingly, elevator girls figure prominently in fantasy media and pornography). But for the elevator girl herself, the vulnerability she might experience working in such a public service job is protected by the uniform and scripted speech.

12 thoughts on “Elevator Girls

  1. This sounds very interesting! Are you publishing more on this, or perhaps presenting a paper (on the west coast)?

  2. Thanks Rebecca! No current plans to do a talk on this. At the AAA in San Francisco I’ll be part of linguistic anthropology session, “Language commodification and circulation in global capitalism.” The elevator girls chapter will be included in Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labor in Japan (edited by Alisa Freedman, Laura Miller, and Christine Yano, Stanford University Press) that should be out early next year.

  3. I remember seeing elevator girls in the 1980s. Now I don’t see them any more. But the uniform dress, heavy makeup, and formal manners remain visible in (1) reception girls to whom visitors report for visitor passes in security-conscious office towers, (2) their cousins, the girls at the information desks in department stores, and (3) also in department stores, the women who demonstrate and sell high-end cosmetics.

    All are a bit different from the classic elevator girl in that they interact directly with individual customers and, thus, are not restricted to canned phrases alone, which are now provided by automated voices.

    In the first category, I think, in particular of the women who man the reception desk at Biz Tower in Akasaka, where Hakuhodo now has its offices. In a recent visit, I noticed that automated visitor pass dispensers that work like check-in kiosks at airports have been installed and wonder how much longer the reception girls will be there.

  4. In Tokyo only a few places still have elevator girls. And they aren’t always on duty, but do appear every now and then for special occasions.Takashimaya in Nihonbashi, for example, no longer has elevator girls on duty but they do occasionally have fashion shows of elevator girl uniforms of the past. The department store “shop girl” is the subject of another chapter in Modern Girls on the Go (by Elise Tipton). I spent some time looking through corporate histories (shashi) for different department stores, and the uniforms and duties of the elevator girl and the shop girl were always clearly differentiated.

  5. I must say that I wonder, from a methodological perspective, why elevator girls and shop girls, the girls who sell cosmetics, and the girls who use to stand beside escalators wiping the rails are treated as separate topics. All appear(ed) in the same department store spaces. All are (were) visibly similar in wearing uniforms and heavy make-up and interacting with customers in stylized ways. Even granted that they are (were) classified differently, wear (wore) different uniforms, and interact(ed) with customers in somewhat different ways, aren’t they all part of the same social field in which all should be included for an accurate description of what is going on?

    I am not saying that elevator girls are not a worthy topic for research. I am suggesting that, as one possible path that allows, “women from diverse regional and class backgrounds an opportunity to work in elegant surroundings in a desired urban location,” elevator girl to be properly understood has to be situated in relation to the alternatives, at least those available in the department store in which she worked. In the best of all possible worlds, the range of paths compared would be expanded to include girls who wind up in hostess clubs, waiting tables at family restaurants, or behind the cash register in supermarkets, etc.

    But, who’s to say, perhaps all this is already being done. Just speculation motivated by probable ignorance.

  6. @John Your question encodes the very reason we wanted to treat them differently. Observers typically conflate heavily made-up, uniform-wearing women as similar service workers. But they are different occupations with different cultural meanings. Department stores hired shop girls and other workers using different criteria (less education was needed to be an elevator girl, escalator girl or shokudo/cafeteria girl), there is a unique history for each occupation, and there are different duties and training involved. I don’t aim to give an ethnographic account of department stores, which anthropologists such as Millie Creighton have already done. I am interested in this particular job, which is also found outside department stores (Tokyo Tower, for example), and how it has been created, imagined, represented and lived. This is an interdisciplinary volume (anthropology, literature, history, cultural studies) that looks at the life experiences and cultural representations of stewardesses, bus guides, SDF members, beauty queens, taxi dancers, educators, and soccer players. We draw on material from news, fiction, autobiography, movies, TV, anime, manga, corporate histories, government surveys, and ethnography. Some chapters do indeed discuss the “range of paths” at different historical times.

  7. “In an old New York Times essay a journalist commemorated the Japanese elevator girl’s voice as being especially piercing and high pitched. Other Americans have similarly made fun of this feminized service occupation, describing it as a particularly extraneous and vacuous job … I want to take the elevator girl seriously as part of a larger effort to reclaim women’s cultural history.”

    Really fascinating project, Laura. Especially since this occupation was written off by many as ‘vacuous’ etc. Interesting who or what gets writtten off as meaningless. You bring up some important points about the kinds of work that ‘society’ deems valuable or worthwhile. I’m looking forward to reading more about this.

  8. @Laura

    With due respect, I wasn’t conflating the types; I was observing similarities across a range of types that suggest a closer look to see how they are differentiated, the underlying assumption being that the differences define a cultural matrix within which women follow different paths for the various reasons you suggest. The cultural meanings and the significance attached to them derive from the matrix and the positions defined within it.

    I am, of course, pursuing an old-fashioned program for structural analysis, updated to allow movement within the field the structure defines—an idea I picked up from James Fernandez’ Persuasions and Performances. The basic idea is that significance derives from movement within the field, not just occupying a static position.

    I wholly applaud taking a closer look at people who otherwise slip anonymously into the background as the world goes about its business and look forward to reading the book, for the reasons that Ryan expresses so well.

    P.S. Another field note — true or false, I can’t say, but at Hakuhodo I sometimes heard people say that the girls at the reception desk were all from very nice, a.k.a., high-status client or political families. The assumption was that they would wind up marrying Hakuhodo men and renewing the alliances that were one of the mechanisms securing the company’s position in Japanese industry.

  9. @John good clarification, thanks. We discuss how most of the “modern girls” wear uniforms or the latest fashions, as well as the newest make-up and hairstyles. That is one of our themes, that women working in certain occupations were seen as the epitome of modern lifestyles and consumption. But our matrix is the job or occupation, not the setting. We think the cultural meanings and significance, being so greatly gendered and part of what is considered exemplary female labor, are more significant than the particular settings. That’s what feminists do—we look beyond a specific setting to ask what is characteristic of how women are treated or represented.

    I think your take from the Hakuhodo location is very insightful. Generally women working at the Information counters had to be from better backgrounds than elevator girls because they couldn’t depend on pre-scripted responses and needed to be speakers of standard dialects. So mostly they were/are from more privileged families.

  10. @Laura

    Glad we are on the same page. May we look a bit more at details. When you write, “that women working in certain occupations were seen as the epitome of modern lifestyles and consumption,” to me that “were” leaps off the page at me. I am thinking of the contrast I now see between the saleswomen in a cluster of new shops devoted to “gyaru” fashions in the basement of the Joinus building at Yokohama Station and the women at the information desk of the Takashimaya department store just upstairs from them. The saleswomen in the gyaru shops dress the part, demonstrating the looks they are selling. In contrast, the uniforms on the women at the Takashimaya information desk are not at all the latest styles. They are visibly strikingly different from both the clothes worn by the customers swirling around them and the latest looks inn sale in the international fashion boutiques on the second floor. If anything, they strike my eye as retro, like airline stewardess uniforms, which in the early days of air travel signaled glamour, but are now just what stewardesses wear, the occupation itself having slipped considerably down the lifestyle hierarchy.

  11. @John Right. The chapter on shop girls was written by a historian who focused on the interwar period. Of course there are lots of different shop girls/saleswomen these days. I recently published an article on Tarot cards and divination in Japan, and could probably make the case that card readers are another type of “saleswoman” with yet another expected form of appearance. Since I have published a little on gyaru language and fashion, I am aware that they certainly look different from department store workers. In my elevator girls chapter and in a few other chapters we talk about the nostalgia factor, the longing for those old fashioned service worker images.

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